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Apple's Panther Outruns Jaguar

By Alex Salkever Sometimes the little things mean a lot. That cliché holds truer when it comes to software than just about anything else. People refuse to upgrade programs when their favorite feature gets left on the cutting-room floor. Others get so frustrated with relatively insignificant bugs that they ditch perfectly good programs because of the annoyance factor. A lot of what Apple (AAPL) has been selling over the years is a minimization of the hassle factor and a maximization of the little things that make software work better.

I thought of this principle repeatedly over the weekend when, like many other Macheads, I got a chance to play with Panther. The latest version of OS X has been touted as a huge leap forward by Apple. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. On the surface it looks pretty similar to Jaguar, the previous version of OS X. But in Panther, the little things matter a lot.

SPEEDY PAYOFF. As I used it more, I came to appreciate the small courtesies that make it so much easier to use than Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows. First thing I noticed was the speed. It's still not blazingly fast, but I spent a lot less time waiting for applications to open up or software to respond.

The test for me was iPhoto. In Jaguar, I found iPhoto supremely user friendly -- but also so slow as to allow me to get up and make tea while I was waiting for it to complete a simple task such as indexing an album. O.K., that's an exaggeration, but it did feel slow.

With Panther, iPhoto is noticeably faster. I still wait for it to finish some tasks but far less than in the past. That's important because my growing collection will only slow it down further as I jam more photo albums with fat digital files.

FRIENDLIER FINDER. The speed shows up in other areas, too. Apple's excellent music jukebox, iTunes, seems to respond more quickly. Before, I had to wait a little bit to flip through songs on Apple's online iTunes Music Store. With Panther, the wait has been reduced considerably. While that might seem more an issue of Internet connectivity, I'm running the same cable modem and the same hardware platform, so in all likelihood the snappier response is due to Apple's software improvements.

The change in the graphical interface is also nice. The differences aren't huge, but I instantly noticed how much more intuitive they make my Apple experience. The new and improved "Finder" box is a perfect example. Divided into three panes, the Finder makes it easier to skip back and forth between different parts of the computer's directory system without opening and closing new windows. That gives me access to all my drives and storage media directly from the Finder rather than having to click back out to the desktop and sift through even more windows. It's a small change that saves a lot of time.

Much of the interface hoopla has surrounded a new feature called Exposé. When users tap the keyboard's F9 key, this feature immediately takes them to a screen showing all the open windows on the desktop in all the various applications. Tap F10, and Exposé takes you to all the windows open in a single application. Tap F11, and it minimizes all the windows and takes you back to a clean view of the desktop.

This feature alone will probably reduce carpal tunnel syndrome among Mac users. I know that the steady pain I get from scrolling seemed to lessen after a weekend with Exposé.

WIPED-OUT FILES. Two new features appeal to my paranoid side: FileVault and SecureEmpty Trash. FileVault encrypts the contents of the Home folder. That gives you a safe place to put files you want to protect. There can be problems, though, if you instruct your system to block access after a certain amount of idle time. If FileVault is enabled, you would need to reenter your FileVault password to regain access to those files.

That's no problem if you're at the keyboard, but for automated updates or programs that, say, back up your hard drive while you sleep, FileVault could prove a royal pain. That said, it makes file encryption easy, and that's something that hasn't really been done well on the desktop before.

SecureEmpty is an option for emptying trash. Rather than merely deleting those files, SecureEmpty completely overwrites the space where those files resided. It's pretty much the same as wiping that part of the disk drive clean, and it's a great thing if you want to make sure what you're throwing out is really gone. In the past, you would need to access separate programs to accomplish the same task, and it was fairly unwieldy for individual files.

HELPFUL TWEAKS. Panther has lots of other little improvements that I love. The new feature in the Address Book that standardizes all phone numbers on a single format is fabulous. I'll never have to remember which format to use again. And Apple thoughtfully included a new anti-spam feature in Apple Mail that strips out a piece of code many junk mailings contain to notify the sender that the message arrived and that the address belongs to a live e-mail account. This will help Apple users more effectively fight off the spam scourge.

To say Panther is perfect would be disingenuous. I've already read plenty of complaints. I myself had some strange application crashes immediately after converting. And a friend had to hard-reboot his system after Panther crashed and as a result had to rebuild some data on his desktop. In general, though, it seems Panther is more stable, faster, and more fun than Jaguar.

Compared to Microsoft's hurry up-and-wait development process, where software-upgrade cycles are now measured in three-year increments, the rapid-fire OS improvements from Apple are refreshing. Panther is sort of like a York Peppermint Patty for your desktop. It's not alienware that turns the whole computing paradigm on its head. Rather, Panther is a familiar, friendly flavor -- only better. I'll buy that for $129, for sure. Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, is alternating with Charles Haddad on Byte of the Apple

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